Thursday, April 28, 2011

Exploring Kidlandia and Loving it

I have a nearly five-year-old daughter, and she is of the inquisitive type. A day with her is a nonstop barrage of questions followed by her own personal extrapolations based on the answers to the questions. I wouldn't call her extrapolations wrong, but rather fanciful, and if not wholly accurate they are at the very least based on the facts available to her.

Others would say that she has a good imagination and I certainly wouldn't contradict them. She has a great imagination (okay, as her father I'm biased, but I'd still argue that she does) and a desire to learn about the world.

Enter Kidlandia.

Begun in 2008 by Brian Backus, Kidlandia is a website that allows kids (with parental oversight) to create worlds based on characters new and old. On the Kidlandia website one can make wall hangings, prints, door hangars, height charts, and gallery wrapped canvases (amongst other things), and personalize nearly all of it.

On the website you choose a character/theme (Kidlandia Kreechurs, Disney characters, Dora, VeggieTales, SpongeBob, and several others in the future) then get a huge number of options involving the plethora of products (the aforementioned canvases, hangings, and more) you can make using the characters. You can also work the other way, choosing the type of piece you want to create and then selecting the characters you want on it.

A basic example of this is the work we created on the right (click for a larger view). It is a Kidlandia Kreechur themed piece done on their "Pirate Hideaway" map. We spent hours customizing it and the final result is better than anything we could have hoped for.

It is with this customization that the real fun—and the use of imagination—begins. Once you have your basic character and piece set, you can use the website's wizard to create names for rivers, oceans, mountains, islands, etc. You can also opt to individually change all the names manually. What you then end up with is a beautiful, almost completely personalized for—and by—your child, piece of art. But, the project can extend well beyond just names and objects on the map. You can actually click on the characters and create stories about them on the site.

Not everything is adjustable, if you look at the paragraph description on the example, that remains constant as does the basic layout of the map (or whichever piece) you've chosen. The creatures are moveable as are the different other objects placed over the map (boats, forts, castles, creatures, etc.).

Part of the brilliance of the site is that it can be a highly involved, hugely intricate endeavor, but it doesn't have to be that time consuming either. As stated, we spent hours creating, adjusting, modifying, and scripting a single piece, but with the template wizard you can just give the site the names of your family members and places you like and have it all done for you.

What also takes some time is the actual production of your piece of art. The final piece of three that was ordered on April 8 arrived on April 22 (the first two came earlier in the same week).

Time aside, the result is absolutely spectacular. We created a height chart, gallery wrapped canvas, and a canvas scroll and were not merely impressed but what arrived on our doorstep, but instantly and completely in love with it. The quality of what you're getting for your money on the Kidlandia site is fantastic and the items make an absolutely perfect addition to any child's room. There is no corner cut with the final product; it is a professionally created, personalized piece which not only will your child love, but which very well may make you the envy of the other kids in your neighborhood.

Due to how the site is organized and the creation process works, there seems to be little that one could do which would result in a "bad" piece showing up on your doorstep. All the items come with a good sprinkling of people, animals, and things already on them without being either overwhelmingly fully or desolate. More can be added and items can be subtracted as well, but it would take a deliberate effort on one's part to make a piece which has things arranged poorly enough to look disappointing.

For those who would rather not go online to create their project and who happen to live in or near New York City, Kidlandia now also has a boutique within FAO Schwarz. While the boutique doesn't have the full range of products that the website does, you can purchase a 24x18 print there, you can take your print home that very day (and there are special FAO only items available at the boutique).

What Kidlandia is really offering is a way for children to both explore within their own imagination and, particularly when used on the website, a way for them to also figure out more about the world at large in which we live (hey, that stuff we designed on the computer here at home is connected to something larger out there somewhere).

Whether you end up creating a family tree (which didn't feel quite as in depth as we would have liked), play with a real map, or create something completely unique and different, the customization options are huge and there is a ton to explore. If your child and your neighbor's one both end up using the same basic template you're still virtually certain to get a final result which is noticeably different.

So few things in this world offer one the opportunity to be creative, have fun, and end up with a result which you're virtually guaranteed to love. Kidlandia is one of those things and a website not to be missed.

Article first published as Product and Website Review: Kidlandia on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

(Said in a Yell) Mortal Kombat!

Back when I was in high school, more years ago than I care to remember, I had an English teacher who liked students to write short papers. He would tell us this on a fairly regular basis and would always remind us why – 10 pounds of bullshit smells worse than one; keep it short, keep it sweet, and don't deliver more bullshit than required. In honor of that English teacher, those of you who don't care to read the next 1,00 words or so of this article can just read one more sentence and glean from it everything you possibly have to know about this new Mortal Kombat. Are you ready? Okay, here it is, the one sentence review – Yeah, it's pretty much Mortal Kombat.

That's it, essentially that's all you really need to know about this rebirth or reimagination or return to the franchise's roots or whatever people are saying of the new Mortal Kombat – it's Mortal Kombat. There is blood and guts and fatalities and Scorpion and Sub-Zero. The game is a 2D fighter with great in-game graphics, utterly brutal action, and an incredibly quick pace.

The heart of the game is the traditional arcade mode where you can compete in a regular one-player ladder tournament, tag team tournament, or several different skill matches. But, before you do any of that you may want to visit the tutorial section… although you're instinct to do that may be mistaken.

Fighting games live and die by the actual specifics of combat (or kombat as it were here) – are you stringing together tons of different button presses to create combos (kombos) or do you just need to mash away at buttons in order to kill (that one stays kill) your opponent? You should be able to learn exactly what a game requires of you in the tutorial and how to execute the various combos you need, but in Mortal Kombat it just doesn't work that well. The game asks you to progress in the tutorial by completing certain moves, only we sat there for an extended period of time pushing the exact buttons we were asked to push in the exact order we were asked to push them without the appropriate combo ever happening. When we moved along to the game itself we had a far easier time of making the various combos happen, but we simply couldn't execute them in the tutorial (even when we returned there later).

There is also a tutorial specifically on fatalities, and that one functions far better. There you get a helpful little box that tells you where to stand to execute the fatality and you can either have it timed (as it is in a game) or untimed so that you have as long as you need to push the right sequence of buttons. Go through the fatality tutorial with your favorite characters and you'll be slicing and dicing opponents in no time.

Actual fights, be they one-on-one, two-on-one, etc., unfold beautifully – the game is fast and you'll need to be fast too if you want to play it well. Yet, for all it's being fast and moves getting thrown left and right and tons of damage being issued, our first run through of the single player ladder had a match which was only decided when time ran out.

Outside of fatalities, Mortal Kombat's personal tweak to the fighting genre (every game has their alleged hook) is a little meter at the bottom of the screen which has three distinct portions that can be filled. Fill the first and you can execute an enhanced (slightly more damaging) special move. Fill the second and you break out of a combo. Fill the third and you can execute one of the highly touted X-ray moves which deals an immense amount of damage and shows you just which of your enemy's internal organs you crushed. The system works really well, it allows you to play slightly more defensively, slightly more offensively, or try to go all out and execute an X-ray move (which, just because you push the buttons won't necessarily happen as your opponent can block or evade them).

The new Kombat also sports a Challenge Tower which asks you complete 300 different challenges from simply executing combos to beating opponents and everything in between. That, combined with the regular old arcade stuff and a pretty good-sized story mode means that there is a whole lot to do in the title.

As for what's involved in that story mode, that's a little more iffy. The mode features some distinctly mediocre cinematics which tell a story about Raiden sending memories back in time to help save Earthrealm from being destroyed by Shao Kahn. You then play through various portions of the story from old Mortal Kombat games as various characters and watch as present-day Raiden tries to work out the memories he got from future-day Raiden so he can save Earthrealm. While a bunch of the battle are good and it's a great way to earn money to unlock bonuses, you're not able to skip past the story and just enter the battles. That really is unfortunate because the story is just as ridiculous as every fighting game story and consequently you're probably going to want to skip it as much as possible. It would be manageable in bite-sized chunks, but folks talk way too much between battles.

There is also an extensive online section which is well worth your time and features several different types of battles. You're going to need to buy the game new to play online or purchase a code, because the one included in the box can only be used once.

Mortal Kombat is a distinct brand of fighter, it is more brutal than most and while it relies on combos it doesn't do so as heavily as other games in the genre. No, what Mortal Kombat asks is that you spill blood, lots of it. As you go further into each battle, fighters take damage which doesn't magically heal and blood hits the ground and remains there. It is a vicious, gore-filled title which revels in its M rating.

Or, to bring you back to what I said about 1,000 words ago – it's pretty much Mortal Kombat. If you like your fighting games bloody and with tons to do, you're going to like this one.

Mortal Kombat is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, and Strong Language. This game can also be found on Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Mortal Kombat on Blogcritics.

GLaDOS Lives: Portal 2

People like to make things complicated that don't have to be. It happens in life and it happens in the world of videogames. Look at some of the progress trees games like those in the Final Fantasy series sport. They may great, but they are also hugely detailed and if you try to picture them in their entirety your brain may explode.

Sometimes that old acronym, KISS, is exactly right and you should just keep it simple, stupid. In 2007 Valve released the first Portal game and the gameplay concept really couldn't have been more simple – each room is a puzzle where you have to get from the beginning to the end. You have no weapons, just an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, or, if you will, a "portal gun." You can fire your portal gun and make holes in walls that will transfer you from one part of the room to another (as you progress you can make two holes to decide where you're going from and too whereas initially one of those locations is predetermined with an already existing hole and you just get to make a second). Other things like lasers and blocks can also go through the portal hole, and your job is to figure out how to best utilize your portal gun to traverse each room.

Portal really is a very simple concept – get from one place to another using mainly your wits. Each level may take you anywhere from 30 seconds to a full hour to complete depending on when exactly you have that moment of clarity which allows you to see the puzzle from a new perspective and thereby find the answer.

On top of that concept, Valve placed something of a minimalist, but nonetheless fascinating (I refer to it this way because you have very little agency in it), tale about a computer, Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System (GLaDOS), going somewhat haywire. You uncover what is taking place with GLaDOS as you go through the game and, at the end of the title, you beat her (she speaks with a woman's voice, so we're going to call it a "her").

How then do they go about making a sequel to this brilliant title? Well, frankly, by doing more of the same and it still works wonderfully.

As fun a villain as GLaDOS is, and due to the way in which she coaxes you through her tests she is fun, the truly great part of the game is the fact that Valve has worked out this simple mechanic—create portal holes to traverse a room—and built level after level after level which constantly test your ingenuity and build on the basic concept. Rather than the levels in the second game feeling like rejects from the first, they are equally clever and will test you just as much if not more.

Please, don't get me wrong, things change dramatically as you go in the title and you're not going to feel like this is a simple rehash of what you did in the first Portal. That being said, I'm not really going to tell you how they change and what may be different, that would ruin so much of the fun. I will tell you that GLaDOS is back; that you learn more about what is going on at Aperture Laboratories and why; and that despite doing more of the same, the game never really feels repetitive.

Portal 2 also comes with the ability to play co-op online in a separate campaign and can be played across different platforms in said campaign. In fact, a huge advantage to buying a PS3 version of Portal 2 is that if you sync your PSN account with your Steam one, you get a free Steam download of Portal 2 for your computer. Sadly, what you can't do is sync a cloud-based save file – save your PS3 game and you can't pick up where you were on your computer. Even so, getting two copies is a pretty great deal and when you consider the fact that the game isn't terribly more expensive on PS3 than on Steam (currently Amazon gets $5.00 more for a PS3 copy than what Steam does for a download) it becomes an even better one.

In case you think my enthusiasm for the series is slightly overdone, I will point out that the sequel is not perfect. Load times are, quite frankly, hugely frustrating. Every time you beat a room, the game takes some time and loads up the next one. That's all well and good when it's taken you a whole long time to figure out how to proceed in the last room, but when you blaze through the room and are itching for the next only to get slowed by yet another load it's becomes discouraging.

Are load times too high a price to pay? No, unquestionably not. Portal 2 is a great expansion of the franchise and manages to successfully bring in new players without overly dumbing down the start of the game for experienced Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device users.

One more word of caution, Portal 2 is a huge time suck. The sense of accomplishment you get when beating a puzzle will cause you on more than one occasion to utter those famous last words, "just one more and then I'll be done." You'll end up beating the game in a minimal amount of time that way (it is a longer campaign than the last one), but the rest of the world may fall by the wayside for a little while. You won't regret your choice to continue, but those around you may get frustrated.

Portal 2 is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence and Mild Language. This game can also be found on: PC, Xbox 360, and Mac.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Portal 2 on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Semi-Delightful, Sort of Delicious, Almost De-Lovely

The biopic has been done before… repeatedly. We have all seen dozens of biopics – if there's a famous person whose life may be remotely interesting, why not making a movie out of it? The only real question then becomes, if you're making a biopic, how do you go about making it interesting. The answer for director Irwin Winkler and writer Jay Cocks in putting together a biopic on Cole Porter is to do it as Cole helping orchestrate a stage a musical about his life. The result of this effort, De-Lovely, is nothing less than highly entertaining even if it isn't the most illuminating.

The film stars Kevin Kline as Porter and Ashley Judd as Linda Lee Porter, his wife. What the film is more notable for however is that the majority of the songs are sung by well-known singers. From Robbie Williams to Sheryl Crow to Alanis Morissette to Elvis Costello and Vivian Green, every time someone who isn't Kline or Judd open their mouths to sing it's a cameo appearance and unfortunately all too often relegated to the background as nothing all too serious takes place in the foreground.

Essentially, what this results in is two big missed opportunities. First, there's the fact that Porter was obviously a musical genius and the singers they've gotten to perform his songs here are outstanding. These are performances that should be heard in their entirety, not simply there to give a little bit of flavor to the film and to make you want to go out and buy the soundtrack (which I've owned since the film's theatrical release and listen to on a semi-regular basis). Then there's missed opportunity number two – if you've opted to have old Cole Porter looking back at the life of young Cole Porter why not give old Cole more than a couple of opportunities to complain about how things are being depicted or to lament his actions? The frame is the perfect way to provide a way in to the man's thoughts and show the audience what Porter felt internally. It's an opportunity simply not used to its full potential and consequently terribly disappointing.

Instead, what we're offered is a very surface-based story of Cole Porter, a man who loved strongly, drank regularly, and wrote songs beautifully. It is pleasantly diverting as far as it goes, and Kline and Judd deliver good performances—as does the criminally underused Jonathan Pryce as the director of Cole's life—but it should have been more. Like a wonderful melody struggling to emerge but never quite making it, there's a great movie hiding just behind the scenes in De-Lovely, but it never gets onto the screen.

No, De-Lovely is, in the end, a movie that has great singers, great songs, a great story behind it, and a great way to tell the story. However, it fails to commit to its own storytelling method and that leaves one wondering why they bothered to utilize the frame in the first place. The way things stand with the movie, it is worse for having the frame because it gives a window into the film that should have been and not what the film is. There is even a moment towards the end of De-Lovely when a friend tells Cole that he's "had the most fascinating life," but after not seeing it on screen one wonders if the film is telling that audience that as much as it is being told to Cole. All in all, there is far too much telling and not enough showing going on in the movie – the most easy and obvious example of which is the fact that it's never clear why Linda loved Cole as much as she did. Obviously she did, but the film never makes any sort of a case for it.

On the technical side of things, the new Blu-ray release of De-Lovely features some good black levels, and a good amount of details. Patterns on clothes in particular are quite detailed. Unfortunately, the level of detail present also makes it more obvious when Judd has makeup on specifically to age her, it becomes distracting and to some extent ruins the effect. Also on the negative side, there is a noticeable flicker in a number of scenes which is highly disconcerting. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is better than the visuals – the music is crisp and clean and beautiful to hear. The surrounds are mainly utilized with said music, providing a more immersive experience. There's nothing grand about the sound, but there are no real disappointments in it either.

The release contains two audio commentary tracks, one with Winkler and Kline and the other with Winkler and Cocks. There are also the obligatory deleted scenes as well as a making-of piece and another shorter one on the music which contains interviews with many of the singers who appear in the film doing Porter's songs. While the interviews are not the deepest, Porter's songs are the best part of the film and learning more about the process of filming them is interesting. The two last featurettes both delve into how scenes were put together (one for each of the featurettes). Winkler and the cast and crew really get into how the scenes were constructed and both of these "Anatomy of a Scene" featurettes are exceedingly interesting. Not to harp on this yet again, but not for the first time MGM has opted to not include a main menu for the film. Every time this omission is made it is a mistake and a disappointment.

De-Lovely has a lot to recommend it, from great musical performances to an interesting main character. However, the film never comes together as well as it should – it never gets as deeply into the characters as it needs to and it never truly gives insight into why anything takes place. It should have been, and it could have been, so much more.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: De-Lovely on Blogcritics.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Secret of NIMH - The Story Goes Blu (but not with a Particularly Good Release)

Don Bluth, a legendary figure in the world of animation, may have, at least in part, come out of the Disney tradition, but looking at his first full length animated feature, The Secret of NIMH, one wouldn't think Disney. Based on the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien, Secret is a dark film, much darker than your typical Disney animated feature.

Something of a mystical and convoluted story, Secret is about some of the smaller animals who live on and around a farm. The main character is Mrs. Brisby, a mouse who must prepare her family to move as winter is ending and the farmer's plow is going to destroy her house. Mrs. Brisby, however, can't move as one of her children is too sick to go anywhere. She manages to secure some medicine to make her boy better, but he still needs several weeks to recuperate.

In an attempt to find a way to stave off the plow, Mrs. Brisby is told to go visit the rats as they can move things and that's when the story gets exceptionally weird. The rats are super-intelligent rats who have been given injections by the folks at the National Institute of Mental Health and who then escaped and have been happily living in the rose bush on the farm.

Trust me, it works much better than it sounds as though it might, and once it gets into rat politics it gets even better. Without delving into too many of the specifics, some of the rats are quite happy with their life and stealing from others while a different group of rats, and the rats' leader, Nicodermus, feel as though they ought to live in a self-sustaining manner.

The Secret of NIMH is a fantastical, dark, interesting, animated feature. However, it is also a movie that raises more questions than it answers and some younger viewers may be frustrated by that. Rather than having a clear opening and closing, Secret drops you off in the middle of a story, a story in which so much has already happened. There is a brief flashback sequence which helps clue the audience in a little more, but which doesn't lay everything bare. Between that and the distinctly dark nature of the movie—and right up until the closing scene it is a very dark movie—this is not one for the youngest members of the viewing audience no matter how cute the mice might be and how funny Jeremy, the crow, looks and acts.

On the other hand, for those who care to examine it, the story is exceedingly interesting and can truly cause one to think about not the way in which we pursue knowledge as much as the way in which we interact with our environment. It is also, it must be said, a beautiful and brilliantly animated feature. There are not only interesting camera angles and shots that you wouldn't necessarily see in a typical animated movie, but it is exceptionally well realized and the darker scenes (like the plow going on its run) are mesmerizingly great.

Unfortunately, the Blu-ray release of The Secret of NIMH wholly fails to do justice to the visuals. The movie is full of scratches and noise, and terribly inconsistent in its presentation from one scene (or shot) to the next. You will come across some very clear, very well defined and detailed shots one minute, only to get something far more muddled the next. The titles that appear at the opening of the film look particularly poor, with something of a shadow image underneath and with a trail to the right (almost as if the letters had zoomed in from the right, which they don't, and arriving at the center of the screen but with a blurry ghost image from where they came on). There is also a flicker from time to time. The audio track is an 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which is what the film had upon release and which works far better than the visuals. Looking at the dirty, scratched print one would have thought that the soundtrack would feature the same dirty, scratched nature, but it does not. It is actually a rather good track, well mixed, and features good music and effects.

MGM has again opted to go without a real menu on the release which is something of a shame. As for the special features, there is a previously released audio commentary with Bluth and collaborator Gary Goldman (story adaptation, producer, and directing animator) which delves into this first feature they did outside Disney, and a behind-the-scenes featurette. Neither is a must watch/listen, but both hold your attention well enough and provide a nice sense of background on how the film came about.

The Secret of NIMH is a fascinating animated feature. It is a dark departure from so many other animated movies, but spellbinding. It may not hook everyone, but those willing to go for the ride will be amazed by not just the story and the questions it doesn't answer, but by the look and way it has all been put together.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Secret of NIMH on Blogcritics.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Shadow Wars - Long Name, Mediocre Game

I am a fan of turn-based games, be they Civilization-style or more action oriented. The idea of being able to plan three, four, five, and more (if you're good) moves ahead and outfox your opponent appeals to me. It was therefore with no little enthusiasm that I popped Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Shadow Wars into my 3DS. The experience was more than a little disappointing.

Burdensome name aside, this game is, of course, a part of the Ghost Recon series but certainly a somewhat different breed nonetheless. It is, as indicated in the first paragraph a turn-based tactical game – your characters exist on a battlefield (town, forest, what have you) comprised of little squares and you get to move from one square to another trying to outmaneuver the completely generic baddies.

There is some story present about people wanting to take over their country and then nearby countries and presumably eventually rule the entire world with their iron fist. The Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Shadow Warsfact that they fail to grasp the notion that the more they tighten their grip the more worlds will slip through their fingers or something like that is not touched on (although that would have made the game a whole lot more enjoyable). In fact, the entire story is wholly irrelevant, really exceptionally dull in general, and made more so as it is told in dialog boxes between levels. You can ignore it completely just as you can completely ignore your mission briefings because every time you start a new level your objectives pop up on screen and are always roughly the same – save the x, kill the y, destroy the z, protect the… I've run out of letters, but you get the point.

You squad changes slightly as you go, but essentially there are six different types of soldiers you can command—commando, gunner, sniper, recon, engineer, and medic—and you run around the battlefield best utilizing each type until you accomplish your goals or lose. There is certainly a sense of progression in the title; as you proceed you can level up characters and do more faster with them, and the difficulty and complexity of what it takes to complete the mission goals increases as you progress as well. There are also other battles that unlock as you win missions. That is all to say that while in terms of story the game fails but in terms of progression it succeeds.

Unfortunately, it also fails at another exceedingly key point – the actual battles. Everything that takes place on screen feels exceptionally stilted – even once Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Shadow Warspositioned properly there is never a smooth flow to how a firefight unfolds. You can speed up how quickly movement is shown, but doing that still doesn't add a good sense of flow to the game. Everything takes too much time, from moving your soldiers (even at quick speed) to their stopping when they arrive at the designated location and firing. There is also too much like before characters return fire once fired upon. Everything in the game is a slow and laborious process. That, combined with the fact that as the story is no good means that there's really nothing to make you want to wait to see what happens when it eventually does.

The game does look pretty enough in 3D, sporting a nearly top-down view and some nice graphics. At least, the graphics are nice on the battlefield, the stagnant ones via which the story is told doesn't really do much to convince you that you ought to spend your time trying to care about why your troops are in the field.

In the final analysis, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Shadow Wars is a really solid idea that has only been Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Shadow Warshalf-implemented. The tactical, chess piece nature of it works and works well. There is certainly a lot going on and a lot to pay attention to during battles. The story, however, is hugely flat and the actual unfolding of the battles is overly slow and dull. Shadow Wars has all the promise of a good game but fails to deliver.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Shadow Wars is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Mild Violence.

Article first published as Nintendo 3DS Review: Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Shadow Wars on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution: Could he be for Real?

I want to believe.

Famously, Fox Mulder had a poster in his office which had that line written and depicted a UFO. I don't know how I feel about UFOs and whether or not I have any desire to believe in them; what I want to believe is perhaps slightly more unlikely.

I want to believe that Jamie Oliver is in fact attempting to help the world for almost wholly altruistic reasons with his show Jamie Oliver'sPhoto Credit:  ABC/Greg Zabilski Food Revolution, that he's not mainly doing it for personal fortune and glory. How slim are those odds?

Last night the second season of Food Revolution started up, and having completed his mission (apparently) last season of helping folks in a small town, this year Jamie has opted to help the people of Los Angeles transform they way think about food.

Well now, right there, you immediately have to ask yourself if the show moved to Los Angeles because the city is bigger and more people can get helped, or if it made the move to L.A. because the costs associated with shooting the series will be lower and the television market is a larger one so more people might choose to watch.

The logic behind putting the show in L.A. could certainly be for both altruistic and non-altruistic reasons, but Oliver argues so strongly and so forcefully that his motives are solely altruistic that I question him that much more strongly myself.

Okay, I'm cynical, but just because I'm cynical doesn't mean I'm wrong.

Plus, let us not forget what I said at the start of this piece – I want to believe. I so want Oliver to be doing this to help the world; I want him to be doing it because he believes he can make a difference in the way our society operates and thinks; I want him to be doing it because he truly cares about the future as a whole and not just his personal future.

I will, of course, never actually have that answer. I can't possibly go inside Oliver's mind and sort out what's actually going on within it.

Maybe part of the reason I have trouble believing him is that Oliver and the TV show seems all too knowledgeable about manipulation. Last night he did a stunt where he showed how, more or less, meat processors extract the last Photo Credit:  ABC/Greg Zabilskilittle bit of meat from what would otherwise get turned into dog food. Let me be up front – I am neither advocating the process nor arguing against it, I don't know enough about it one way or the other. What I do know is that Oliver's version of the process was certainly orchestrated to highlight the yuck factor and to elevate general distaste for the procedure. He may be right, it may be a horrible idea and truly dangerous, but the way in which he went about showing the process was carefully calculated to get people on his side, and with his being up front about his version not being terribly accurate we can't know what may have been changed to highlight the disgustingness of it all.

On the plus side, I don't think that Oliver would deny that he was manipulating his audience. I think he would argue that he set up that demonstration and the one in which he loaded the sugar onto a school bus (in order to illustrate the added sugar in flavored milk) in order to shock and upset folks. Well, I'm not being fair, I think he would admit he was being manipulative because he pretty much said that he was with the sugar demonstration. He needs to get people angry at the establishment in order for things to change, so naturally he would try to push people's buttons.

All that means though is that Oliver is a smart guy, one knowledge about what is effective on television and in person. It doesn't mean that his motives for getting folks riled up aren't solely to benefit Oliver himself and that helping Los Angeles (and the world) isn't simply a byproduct of that (kind of like the dog food is a byproduct of the butchering of the cow).

What I keep coming back to here is that Oliver could be using his skills and charisma (and he certainly has a lot of both) for good or for ill and that without being in his skin we'll never truly know his motives.

Mulder's obsession with wanting to believe only took meeting an alien to prove that it was not in vain. I think figuring out Jamie Oliver's motives may be a tad more difficult.

But, in the end, I really like the show, I really like the idea behind it, and I want to believe.

Article first published as Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution - I want to Believe on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Heading Back to the Future for Episode 3 of the Telltale Series

Marty McFly is back… again. Telltale Games has released the third episode in their Back to the Future: The Game series and this time we find poor Marty back in 1985, but a (different) alternate 1986. As with the other entries in this episodic franchise, it is a fun, but at times stilted, experience.

We have to assume that if you're reading this review you fall into one of three larger categories: lover or at least exceedingly quizzical about all things BTTF, hater (but potentially still quizzical) about all things BTTF, or that you're simply waiting to see if Telltale delivers a decent experience over the course of the season before you buy the game. Perhaps we should draw a Venn Diagram with these three categories, because you may very well find yourself in more than one of the above groups. That being said, this article will mostly focus on the third of the larger groups because there's probably no talking to anyone in the first two.

As you would expect—let's face it, Telltale would be insane to change things at this point—the game remains in their traditional puzzle format. Essentially, you go around, grab every object that you can, and talk to people in order to learn how you should go about using all those objects that you've grabbed.

The beauty of this is in its simplicity. As there's little alteration in the format from their other titles, Telltale can spend their time crafting an in-depth fun story and interesting puzzles rather than having to reinvent the wheel every time.

Of course, that's the problem too, at times the game feels overly simplistic and unable to cope with you, as the player, wanting to do anything that the game doesn't want you to do. One more than one occasion during this episode you'll go about trying to solve the current problem in a way that seems perfectly logical to you, but that isn't the way the game wants you to solve it and you will, therefore, fail.

The best example of this we have from the current episode is a moment when you, as Marty, are trying to find Einstein who happens to be hiding. You have in your possession a truly disgusting edible treat that the pooch likes and know that he's hiding in one of three locations. Your logic may dictate that you hold out the treat and move around to the possible spots, figuring that you'll entice the dog out. Your logic would in no way be flawed except for one tiny problem – that's not the way Telltale wants you to find the dog and so Marty will refuse to execute what you're telling him to do.

As for the story that takes place within this alternate 1986? Yeah, we're not going to tell you a lot about that. Look again at our assumption above – we figure that if you're reading this review you're waiting to buy the whole game and just about everything that happens here in this alternate 1986 is an outgrowth of the first two episodes. If we told you that Doc… excuse us, Citizen Brown was running an alternate Hill Valley and that it had a lot to do with Edna Strickland, Kid Tannen, and a rocket powered drill it wouldn't mean all that much… unless you know who Edna Strickland and Kid Tannen are and what went down with the rocket powered drill. And, you won't know about those things unless you've played at least one of the first two episodes, and if you have, you probably don't need us to tell you what this game's all about, because it's like the first two except that the plot has progressed.

We wouldn't suggest that Back to the Future – The Game: Episode 3 is perfect, you will find yourself frustrated by some of its shortcomings. That being said, the plot that Telltale has constructed with the series is a fun one, and the problems that Marty has to fix are amusing. The graphics aren't knock-your-socks-off outstanding but pleasing enough and the voice talent does a good job.

We still definitely recommend that all fans of the film trilogy and/or Telltale's usual brand of wacky puzzle fun check it out.

Back to the Future: The Game - Episode 3 is rated RP (Rating Pending) by the ESRB but other episodes have been rated T (Teen).

Article first published as PC/Mac Game Review: Back to the Future - The Game: Episode 3 on Blogcritics.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Hitting the Asphalt in 3D

Asphalt 3D is not exactly what you would call a simulation racing game. In fact, if, rather than stating that all racing games were either simulation or arcade you placed them on a continuum with simulation on one end and arcade on the other, Asphalt 3D would still end up relatively far into the arcade side of things.

The game features iffy physics, and a decent sense of travelling at high speed while offering a plethora of upgrades. You need not worry about adjusting downforce or grip, the point of the game is simply to hold the gas down, use turbos when you can (make out our stash of turbos and get "hyperspeed"), and pass all your opponents.

Throwing it into reverse for a moment, the heart of this latest Asphalt takes place in career mode. There, you start off with one car on easy courses with simple opponents and slowly work your way up toAsphalt 3D something more serious (but not a whole lot more serious). As you win races you earn XP and cash. In their simplest terms, the XP unlocks upgrades and the cash lets you buy those upgrades (and more cars). Courses are also littered with cash as well as wrenches (to bang out any dents you may have gotten on the course) and turbos (to boost your speed). You also earn cash during a race by nearly colliding with other cars – actually collide with them and you lose money.

In career mode you level up relatively quickly and earn lots of cash which means that you can continually be buying new cars and getting lots of upgrades for them too. There are, as it may seem, a ton of ways to earn money and you'll soon find yourself with a hefty stockpile for all your purchasing needs. That almost—almost—makes the game work, because the truth is that after a couple of races, the majority of the game has a very been there done that feel.

There are different race types and different courses and semi-hidden shortcuts, but after a while there simply isn't enough differentiation between them all. And, in the end, your strategy in every single race is the same and Jerry Reed expressed it perfectly decades ago, "Just put that hammer down and give it hell," or if you prefer other parts of that song "Keep your foot hard on the pedal. Son, never mind them brakes."

We have no problems whatsoever with going at high speeds for extended periods, but the physics of it all don't really seem to work. Zip along at Asphalt 3Dyour top speed and you can hit the side of the course with little to no issue, you either keep travelling along the edge and lose speed because of whatever you're hitting or you move back to the center and continue on your merry way. Actual head-on crashes do manage to stop the car, but not for one minute will you believe that your car could possibly sustain so little damage and have so few theatrics result from a head-on collision.

Asphalt 3D does feature some officially licensed cars as well as 17 based-in-reality locations, the ability to earn sponsorships (which provide bonuses to your car), and local multiplayer. Those elements certainly add to the title, but rather than making it deep, only make it seem like a full game instead of a rough draft.

The majority of the top-screen graphics are pretty enough and the 3D well used to place things at different depths. The cars are nice to look at certainly and the backgrounds not bad. The bottom screen however isn't quite as Asphalt 3Dnice. That screen is mainly used to provide you with a basic, non-exciting to look at, outline of the course and everyone's positions on it. That course outline also shows you where all the shortcuts are, which is a little weird considering that you get bonus cash for entering one which makes it seem as though they should be hidden. However, even if the bottom screen didn't show you where the shortcuts were, you'll regularly see cash or a wrench or a turbo at the start of shortcut and in a location that wouldn't exist were a shortcut not present so you'll know exactly where to go without ever taking your eyes off the top screen.

In the end, Asphalt 3D just doesn't seem to go far enough. Why have semi-secret shortcuts? Make them secrets. Why have semi-realized crashes? Make them big and powerful. Why have a decent sense of speed? Make it blazingly fast. Asphalt 3D is an arcade racer that could never be remotely considered a simulation game but which doesn't seem to truly embrace its own arcade-ness. If it wants us to take the plunge, it ought to do so as well.

Asphalt 3D is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Mild Violence.

Article first published as Nintendo 3DS Review: Asphalt 3D on Blogcritics.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

A Milkman, A Fiddler, and Tradition Walk into a Bar...

The Norman Jewison directed 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof is unquestionably about Judaism and Jewish tradition, but the truth is that it's also about so much more than that. It's about the human condition; it's about family; and it's about how we all learn to relate to people who are different, be they of a different age, gender, religion, or background. It is impossible to sit and watch the three hour tour-de-force and not find something in it which you can see mirrored in your own life.

At the heart of the film ,and repeatedly breaking the fourth wall, is Tevye (Topol in an Oscar nominated performance). Tevye is a Jewish milkman living with his wife, Golde (Norma Crane), and five daughters in the village of Anatevka in Tsarist Russia just after the start of the 20th Century. It is not an easy life for Tevye, his family, or any of the other members of the community, but as he would tell you, it's tradition and so that is what he does.

As much as Tevye may appreciate and respect tradition, he finds that his three oldest daughters – Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh), and Chava (Neva Small) – don't necessarily want to follow in the same path. Over the course of the film, one by one, they all ask for permission to marry someone that they love and who is not of Tevye's choosing. Their desire to not wholly abandon life as they and their family know it, but to tweak it slightly.

Just as it does today for all of us, the world around Tevye is changing and the ways that worked from him when he was young don't work for his daughters. What the film doesn't say overtly is that it's entirely probably that the way Tevye does things aren't really the way his parents did, no matter how much he may argue that he is simply following tradition. The reality is – and the film acknowledges this – that we don't live in a vacuum and things change from generation to generation, it's not always an easy change to deal with, but simply sticking one's head in the sand doesn't work either.

Towards the end of the film, Tevye acknowledges to the audience that he has repeatedly been forced to bend in order to make his daughters' happy. However, at that same moment, Tevye insists that he can bend no more, that the latest request from one of daughters is simply too much to bear. Tevye refuses to acquiesce, refuses to turn from his tradition on this occasion, and the result is so cataclysmic within the world of the film that not only does the movie rapidly draw to a close, but it does so with the inhabitants of Anatevka forced to leave their homes and give up nearly everything that they have. Tevye's refusal to move away from this one tradition of his ends up with his losing almost everything. By ending in this manner, we're being told that in order to stay who we are we have to give up some of the same. It's an essential truth of the world – the Earth keeps spinning and while looking back and honoring the past is appropriate, becoming stuck in it is all too easy and none too good.

Alongside this story of tradition and changes to it, is beautiful, Oscar-winning, cinematography by Oswald Morris and an incredible set of songs (screenplay by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, adaptation and orchestration by John Williams). Whether or not one has ever seen the movie before, it is nearly impossible to go through life and not have heard at least one of the songs.

All of this put together – the story, the visual presentation, the music, and some great acting – make Fiddler on the Roof a true classic in every sense of the word. The film is now 40 years old but remains as vibrant, breathtaking, and true as it ever has been.

The 40th anniversary Blu-ray release sports a new 7.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio track that sounds absolutely spectacular. It is clear and crisp with no hints of noise or pops that you might think a film from 1971 would have. When the music plays (and it plays a lot), it is full, rich, and entirely immersive. The visuals, while impressive, are not quite as clean. There is a noticeable flicker in several scenes, most notably when the sky is present. By and large the print is a clean one, although there is certainly the occasional bit of dirt. There is an ever-present (as there should be) grain to the picture, but still a good deal of detail.

The release also comes with a DVD version of the movie and a number of special features, including a storyboard to film comparison; a deleted song; two different pieces on the music itself (one about Williams work and one about the original music from the play); and a look at the how Harris, Marsh, and Small got their roles and their work on set. All of those pieces are relatively interesting, but better are two different pieces on Jewison, an audio commentary by Topol and Jewison (recorded sepearately), and a discussion on the filming of Tevye's dream. You can watch this last sequence with the original full-color filming side by side with the desaturated final version or watch the full color version with an introduction by Jewison. All in all, there is a lot to watch and learn about what went into making this classic movie and while not of it is anything that simply has to be watched, it is all worth a look. It must also be said that MGM has, almost inexplicably, opted to not produce a main menu for the film. All the special features are accessed from a pop-up menu which can only be seen from the main movie. It is an odd and disappointing omission for an otherwise strong release.

Fiddler on the Roof is a great movie, a great musical, and a great rumination on life. It really is so much more than a simple look at a Jewish family and community in Russia, offering to anyone who wants to see it a full view of how we are all affected by the ever-changing world and how we all must learn to deal with the changes, no matter how hard that may be.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Fiddler on the Roof on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D - More Than Just a Pretty Face?

After playing Madden NFL on the 3DS and being sorely disappointed with the result, we ended up with the perhaps irrational fear that it was going to be impossible for a developer to put together a fun, exciting, enjoyable sports title on the system. Sports titles on handhelds are notoriously difficult to execute anyway, and heck, if Madden couldn't put out an enjoyable version of the premiere football franchise, what chance did anyone else have?

As we said though, that was something of an irrational fear, but one we harbored nonetheless. We won't say that the new Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D has completely assuaged our worries, but it certainly has mitigated them.

If you're like us and have the same sort of fear, you definitely won't be convinced of your wrongness when you pop in the PES 2011Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D cartridge and start up a match. While the graphics are good—not great, but definitely good—the default camera view that game provides is far too zoomed in and almost wholly useless. Sure, it highlights the 3D-ness and the characters and field, but it doesn't actually give you any sense of scope, where other players are, and how a set piece may be developing.

That is exactly when your fear will take hold of you – why would they bother with that viewpoint? Does PES 2011 on the 3DS have so little to offer that they're going to give you a bad default camera choice just so you don't notice the number of other issues? No, as it turns out, that was just a single really bad decision. We won't go so far as to say that the rest of the game is utterly brilliant—it assuredly isn't—but it's better than you're first led to believe.

The basic problem the game has is the lack of control it imparts to the player. Rather than really being able to turn in 360 degrees (one would have thought that possible with the analog controls the 3DS sports), you're still only able to go in eight possible directions. That makes it awfully hard to control where passes and shots end up, and you'll find that you routinely fire off a pas to a covered player instead of going to the open guy just a hair to the left or right of where the pass actually went.

The game does sport some real players and teams, and most of the gameplay you'll do will take place either in the Master League or Champions League. Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D In Champions, you can do a competition setup which features round robin matches and then a knockout stage, whereas in Master League your more running a team. I say "more" because while you can sign players, make them like your team, and tweak odds and ends, you never really feel as though you can get into the nitty-gritty details of it all.

In short, that's really the sort of thing which, for better or worse, we've come to expect from a handheld sports title. On the 3DS, PES 2011 has pretty good graphics, stilted but enjoyable in-game action, and not quite as robust a set of modes as you might actually want. One of the more interesting and better additions to the title is the in-game utilization of a portion of the bottom screen which allows you to setup various team strategies in advance and then simply tap one to implement them. It is a really good use of the bottom screen without having to make you constantly raise and lower your eyes during a game.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D has all those hallmarks of a launch title that make it fun and frustrating at the same time. From the poor default camera angle which highlights the graphics and 3D-ness at the expense Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3Dof playability to the lack of precise controls for your players, one can almost see where the next iteration of the franchise on the system will head. The current title is good and is a better football game than the equivalent version of American football we've gotten on the 3DS, but it's not spectacular. Next year's version, however, might be (and maybe it will include online play as well).

If nothing else, the game has shown us that a great 3D sports title is certainly viable and something we should, without a doubt, be expecting to see on Nintendo's latest handheld.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

Article first published as Nintendo 3DS Review: Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Shift 2 Unleashed - Releasing Your Inner Stig

In the end, the point of videogames is to provide an enjoyable experience. Be the game big or small, wholly immersive or quick and surface level, you should enjoy the time that you're playing them. Better games, however, are the ones that stick with you and provide fond memories when you're not there with them.

When I sit down to review a racing game, the questions I ask myself about it are not solely limited to the cars, tracks, upgrades, customization, video, audio, and online play. No, they actually extend to how that racing game comes back to me in the real world. The racing titles I like the best are the ones which, when I'm sitting in my car, have me thinking about racing lines and gear changes, oversteer and understeer, downforce and grip. In recent days, Shift 2 Unleashed has caused me to think about all of that and more. That is to say, Shift 2 is a pretty good racing game and a truly enjoyable experience.

The basic problem I think some people find with immersive racing simulation titles is that people believe that they're better players than they actually are. At its very outset, Shift 2 eliminates that as aShift 2 Unleashed possible bone of contention. Before you are actually allowed to begin the career mode, you are put behind the wheel for two races and based upon your performance in those two races, the game calibrates the difficulty level to one that you will find appropriate – neither too easy, nor too hard. The game's decision is, of course, changeable as you go along in the title, but it does provide an excellent starting point.

Ostensibly, your goal in Shift 2, which has you racing on closed courses in real cars, is to win the FIA GT1 World Championship, but I seriously doubt that anyone playing the title actually considers that their goal, it's kind of just a manufactured goal for career mode because career modes tend to need a goal. The actual goal for most people will be to race, to race well, and to do so across the 120 different track layouts (utilizing 35 different real world locales) with a plethora of the 120 different licensed vehicles and then to post good enough times with the game's Autolog system so as to appropriately humiliate all their friends. In short, there is a ton to unlock in Shift 2, a ton to customize, a ton to buy, and a ton of fun to be had, and you're going to want to see and do just about everything the game has to offer.

With so much going on in the game, Shift 2 can appear a little overwhelming, but developer Slight Mad Studios has really narrowed the entire thing down to bite-sized pieces. There is a large number of different levels of tracks and competitors which unlock as you go along, and within each of those levels the types of races in which you take part are further Shift 2 Unleashedseparated. Then, when you're customizing your car so as to better perform on the track, you can either tweak a large number of individual items or have the game tweak those areas based upon a smaller set of options, i.e., rather than playing with several different settings to adjust oversteer and understeer there is a separate tuning menu which will allow you to simply choose more oversteer or understeer. The game in no way requires or promotes one or the other method, allowing you the player to choose the amount of control you want to utilize. Once your car is tweaked, you can then save the configuration, multiple configs can be saved, and choose specific tracks on which each config ought to be used.

As you play and complete certain objectives both within a single race and in the greater scheme of things you earn money and level up, thereby opening more courses, more races, and giving you the cash to improve existing cars and buy wholly new ones.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the game is the highly touted Autolog system which puts just a little too much emphasis on the multiplayer aspects of it all. This isn't the first game in the Need for Speed franchise which has used Autolog, but in essence, what it does is push for you and all your friends to buy the title so that you can compare stats every single time you, Shift 2 Unleashedindividually, home alone, race. When you finish a race, the game informs you where on your Speedwall you rank in comparison to your friends on that course – and helpfully actually provides the model of car (and how upgraded it was) which produced the times. That's all interesting enough if you have a whole bunch of friends with the game, but if you don't, it just takes up time and space. Beyond that, the game seems to not handle very well the fact that you haven't hooked up with many friends as its wording every time you're still number one on a course on your Speedwall makes it sound as though you're not doing a good job.

The other main problem with the game is the amount of times that it takes saving and loading anything is exceptionally long. It pulls you right out of the title to sit there for so long after a race as the game slowly but surely gets ready to save and then actually does. We also noticed that if you restart a race in the middle (because, frankly, what that other guy did to you was hugely wrong and unfair – like your being disqualified in a duel for hitting the other car when he actually rear ends you as you slow going into a turn), things don't always fully reset on the course. For instance, if you hit a tire wall and send tires flying everywhere, then restart the race in the middle, those tires have a horrible tendency to be floating in space right where they were the last time out (visually anyway if not physically).

On the other hand, those tires are awfully pretty to look at. The game is utterly beautiful, with great looking cars and fantastic looking courses. Shift 2 UnleashedYou're not really going to get a huge chance to check it all out in the middle of a race, but if you play with the camera angles as you zip down a straightaway, you're going to be mighty impressed with what you see. It really doesn't matter whether your racing at day or at night, or which camera angle you're using, the game is beautiful.

If my incessant watching of Top Gear has taught me anything, it's that racing modified street cars on a closed course can be an incredible amount of fun. Shift 2 Unleashed further pushes that notion, crying out for the Stig in all of us to don that Alpinestars outfit (Alpinestars is present in the game) and get racing. Now if I can just figure out how to shave 30 seconds off the morning drive to preschool…

Shift 2 Unleashed is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Mild Suggestive Themes, Mild Violence. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360 and PC.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Shift 2 Unleashed on Blogcritics.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Taking a Listen with Marc Ecko's UNLTD.SOUND Force Headphones

Over the course of the past 20 or 25 years, the use of headphones has grown in incredible ways. Jump on a subway in New York City and you'll see a huge number of the now iconic white earbuds that come with every iPod and iPhone. In fact, Apple has done such a good job at imbuing those white earbuds with meaning that you can now buy knockoff white earbuds so that everyone will think you're listening to an Apple product as you keep your Zune carefully hidden in your pocket.

Let's face it though, as iconic and convenient as those little white earbuds are, they don't produce the greatest sound you've ever heard, they can fall out easily, and they're simply not all that comfortable. They are also, of course, not the only game in town.

In fact, Marc Ecko has recently released an entire line of headphones called UNLTD.SOUND. The line contains four different over-the-ear headphones as well as two in-ear models. That offers the consumer a decent amount of choice within the fashion designer's lineup, and with suggested prices ranging from $59.99 for the top of the line Force headphones to $9.99 for the in-ear Chaos set, the prices are all pretty reasonable as well.

For our review, we received a Force headset in Graffiti White (it is also available in Gold and Camo Grey). With a 1.2 meter cable, travel bag, and volume controls on the cord, the Force set comes with just about everything you need to get going (for what it's worth, all the over-the-ear sets are 1.2 meters and have a carry bag).

The technical details for the Force set are as follows: they have a 38mm speaker diameter, an impedance of 32 OHMS, maximum power input of 200mW, and frequency response of 10Hz to 22kHZ. They also feature noise reduction and mega bass.

Although perhaps a little shocking to look at initially, we quickly grew to like the appearance of the black graffiti on a white background. It helped that when we put them on we instantly found them hugely comfortable. Once we actually plugged them in, we were even more impressed – they sounded quite good, providing a noticeable improvement from the speakers of our handheld gaming device, and unquestionably sounding far better than our white earbuds. Sitting down and listening to a movie, music, or a game, every sound was clear and distinct, nothing was lost either on the high or low end. There was also a huge amount of bass present when the volume was turned up. Although increasing the volume on the headset cord doesn't change the volume on your device (unlike your white earbuds), increasing the volume on the headset does not add any sort of hiss or distortion as we have seen elsewhere.

Even better than that for us, however, is the fact that after wearing them for several hours they were still just as comfortable as they had been when we first put them on. In our estimation, headphones not only have to sound good and not look inordinately foolish, they have to be comfortable as well, and the Force headphones certainly fit those qualifications.

While we have absolutely no complaints about the sound or the look of the headphones, we did run into some problems actually connecting them to our devices. The Force headset never sits fully flush with any device, there is always a little bit of metal from the headphones' audio jack visible. Additionally, the Force headset does not connect to an iPhone 4 if the iPhone 4 has an Apple provided bumper. With an iPhone 4 bumper, the headset's audio jack will simply not push far enough in to lock securely. The random scattering of other cases we had present for our testing worked with headset, but we wouldn't go so far as to say that only the Apple manufactured case is a problem.

After testing them out, we can say that the reasonably priced Marc Ecko UNLTD.SOUND Force headset has found its way into our laptop bag, a place where real estate is at a premium. They are, sadly, not a replacement for our white earbuds, but whenever we are given the opportunity to use the Force headphones instead of the buds we unquestionably will.

Article first published as Product Review: Marc Ecko UNLTD.SOUND Force Headphones on Blogcritics.